Japan finds sea bed treasure trove of rare earth elements

Rare earth elements are essential for our modern technology, mobile phones, LCD screens even the batteries in hybrid cars depend on them. The elements themselves are actually not rare, however they are hard to source from easy-to-mine minerals. Currently China produces over 95% per cent of the world’s supply, this monopoly has caused problems for other countries, Beijing halted exports to Japan in September 2010 after a maritime dispute and has actively restricted exports to all countries since in a bid to drive up prices and force manufacturing investment onto its shores.

However, Japan may not have to pander to Chinese whims for much longer as scientists are celebrating the find of an “astronomically” high level of rare earth deposits at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This find is not the first time that they have ‘hit gold’ on the Pacific Ocean floor. Two years ago, Yasuhiro Kato and colleagues at the University of Tokyo announced they had found mud that was rich in rare earths, unfortunately for Japan though the find was below international waters.

This second discovery was made in deep-sea mud around the island of Minami-Torishima at 5,700 meters below sea level. Although it is very deep, the deposits are in highly-concentrated nodules that can be extracted using pressurised air with minimal disturbance off the seafloor and no need for the leaching. The latest discovery is inside Japan‘s exclusive economic zone, leaving the country free to mine it without having to negotiate any mineral rights.

Kato hopes that the new find will help weaken China‘s monopoly on rare earths. “When researchers brought back the data to me, I thought they must have made a mistake, the levels were so high. The fact is this discovery could help supply Japan with 60 per cent of its annual needs merely with the contents of a single vessel.”

Currently, Japan consumes around half the world’s rare earth elements and imports more than 80 per cent of them from China so when the Chinese restricted exports in 2010, Japan had to endure skyrocketing prices. If Japan could produce even 10 per cent of its own rare earths, Kato predicts that China would lower its prices in order to impede Japan‘s development project. “This is a very effective resources strategy,” he notes.

Kato’s team will explore the new rare earth resources for the next two years, before mining begins.

Source: The New Scientist, www.mining.com, The Telegraph

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